Paul Weller is having a quick, five-minute break, and while he declines the opportunity to have a cigarette, he jumps at the chance of tea. “Oooh, I’d love a cuppa, thanks!” he exclaims; a proper mug duly arrives minutes later. We’re sitting on a sofa on the fourth floor of the Warner Brothers office in Kensington, where Weller is doing a number of interviews in support of new album Saturns Pattern. He’s dressed, unsurprisingly, in full Modfather regalia; dark brown cashmere knit, immaculately pressed bootcut trousers, elegant suede Oxford shoes. The fact he’s just done a piece on camera might explain the enormous, rock star shades he’s wearing; that they stay on during our time together makes me wonder whether they serve as a shield to hide behind, or if he’s just grown so used to the process of days like today that he’s forgotten to take them off.
It must be the latter, for Weller just doesn’t do pretence. Down to earth and affable, he peppers our conversation with “man” and “mate”, and the backslapping bonhomie extends to the endless rounds of press – “This is the nice bit because everything is new…it’s kind of fresh” – something a man of his experience could be forgiven for dismissing as tiresome and tedious. Even his tea – milk, two sugars, strong enough to stand a spoon in – harks back to his no nonsense, working-class roots in Woking. He has a reputation as being a somewhat gruff, impatient interviewee, but I suspect that’s just because his bullshit detector is particularly sensitive; steer clear of the painfully obvious – “When are The Jam reforming?” – celebrity gossip, and his family, and he gives honest, revealing answers.
Paul Weller in session, recorded exclusively for Drowned in Sound.
We meet four days after his concert at the Royal Albert Hall for the Teenage Cancer Trust. The charity is celebrating its 15th Anniversary, and Weller has long been a loyal supporter. It speaks volumes that, at the beginning of a promotional campaign and having just completed a UK tour, he was still willing to give his time generously. “What they’ve done over the last fifteen years is incredible,” he explains, “and it’s one of those charities where you know that whatever proceeds are raised, they go only where they’re supposed to, you know? You can physically see the results. I visited one up in Newcastle a few years ago, and talking to the kids there, the difference that it has made to their lives and their parents – you can’t argue with that.”
His special guest for the night was old friend Johnny Marr, who joined Weller and his band on stage for a version of an Sixties classic, ‘(I’m A) Road Runner’. These shows have a long history of collaboration; he's played with Paul McCartney, Noel Gallagher, and Pete Townshend, and in 2013 he climbed behind the drums as Gallagher and Damon Albarn very publicly buried the hatchet with a sweet, ramshackle rendition of ‘Tender’. Has he never been tempted to turn such fleeting moments with his peers into something more concrete?
“It’s a lovely idea, but I think it would be hard to get it together because all of us are always off doing something, or someone’s on tour. It’s one thing coming together for a charity gig, but it might be a different story when you’re making a record together; I’m never sure how much democracy works in a band.”
Ah, super-star egos. It’s a subtle reminder that not everyone is as egalitarian in outlook as Weller, but he goes on.
“Having said that, me, Damon [Albarn] and Graham [Coxon] did a thing last year for Record Store Day where we backed Michael Horovitz, who is an old beat poet from way back, one of the last surviving ones really. We played with him, it came out on record, and that was nice; there were no egos involved and everyone just got on with it really.”
He has a charming, old-fashioned habit of referring only to “records” – it’s never an “album” – and we talk about Saturns Pattern, his twelfth. Billed as a mixture of “languid grooves and spine-tingling rock’n’roll”, it sounds like a step back from the experimental kaleidoscope of styles he’s employed to great acclaim on his last three efforts (where he swung from dub reggae excursions to dream-like, jazz-inspired psychedelia via pulsing, electro, spoken word punk). There are riffs a plenty, heavy guitars, some timeless melodies, and a gorgeous little piano stomp called ‘Going My Way’; one comment below the YouTube video for the title track sums it up thus: “Nice to hear him writing something based around a melody again, instead of bashing away at a couple of chords and growling over a sonic landscape.”
I ask if this shift was deliberate, a retreat to more familiar ground; he claims it’s not. “I don’t hear it like that, no, so it’s hard for me to answer that to be honest with you. I find it really original and unique, so I hear it differently to how you do, you know what I mean?” There’s just a hint of annoyance in his voice, and he shifts in his seat. It’s remarkably different in style and execution to Sonik Kicks I say, and less overtly experimental, but he cuts me off.
“Well, only from the point that I didn’t want to make Sonik Kicks Part Two! I’ve always hoped that I could move it along and do something different every time, which is not always possible. But that’s my intention. I think it’s really different; I mean, any of my music, you can always hear what has influenced it. Overall Saturns is out there on its own, and I don’t think you can compare it to anything else going on personally.”
One thing is clear; it’s lovingly recorded, and the mix has a deep, rich lustre to it. It sounds crafted, luxurious even. Weller has never claimed to be a studio perfectionist, but free of the usual deadlines related to time and money – he has his own recording space, Black Barn in Surrey – he obviously wasn’t rushed. Sometimes he’d get through a couple of tracks in a day, others took a whole week to polish. "There was no pattern to it really, and if there is a pattern you have to break it and re-assemble it. It depends on the song, the mood…so many different factors. There’s no wrong way to do it I think…”
“I didn’t really know what I wanted, but I knew what I didn’t want, so that helped. It was a question of just experimenting with sounds and songs until we hit a point where I thought: ‘That’s what it should be’. We try to make it as good as we possibly can, but I wouldn’t want make it so perfect that there were no rough edges – it would become too linear. There are things that are out of tune, a voice or guitar, which is fine because if that’s how it was then that is how it’s supposed to be.”
He’s been remarkably prolific these last few years, despite having some sizable laurels that he could rest on, should he so wish. 2010 saw him scoop both the NME’s Godlike Genius Award and an Ivor Novello Lifetime Achievement Award, the types of accolade that precedes the industry gently ushering the recipient off into the sunset to enjoy their dotage. Three records – one of them nominated for the Mercury Music Prize – an EP, a second compilation LP, a live album, and more or less constant touring since is quite a workload for anyone, never mind a 56 year old. But Weller remains as restlessly creative as ever – he has his own menswear label now – and the proud owner of a fierce work ethic.
We chat about Blur; he’s a big fan, and likes their new album. But more than Albarn’s ability to succeed across various genres and projects – “He can do anything, that boy” – he admires his discipline to just sit down and get it done. Much like Nick Cave, Albarn has spoken before of the importance of keeping regular hours and working at ideas until they click; go in at 9am and emerge 8 hours later, whether anything worthwhile was produced or not. Weller approves, but that approach doesn’t work for him.
“I couldn’t do a nine to five on it at all, it wouldn’t interest me. I really have to wait until it happens. Sometimes I sit down and I’ll write a load of lyrics, or do a song in an evening; other times I couldn’t really care less and I don’t think about it until I need to. Often I’ll just write little scraps of ideas in a notepad, and then I won’t look at them – I’ll just stash it away until the time is right. When that comes, I look through them and take little bits and pieces, whatever fascinates or interests me.”
This is the way it’s been since 22 Dreams; strumming away on a guitar with a pad and pen just doesn’t excite him anymore. It’s a brave move, but it’s led to arguably his best material since the early days of his solo career. Besides, Weller has never been afraid to shake things up; he disbanded both The Jam and the Style Council abruptly – prematurely, some might say – and in 2010 changed his entire live band, even ditching drummer Steve White, who’d played with him constantly since 1983.
His personal life has also seen its fair share of upheaval and strife. Now five years sober, there was much tabloid tutting when, in 2008, he split from his long term partner and moved in with Hannah Andrews, a backing singer from the 22 Dreams sessions; they’re now happily married, with twin boys. One song on Saturns, ‘Long Time’, scans like the redemptive celebration of a man who felt lost, but found a way out of the darkness; “For a long time I couldn’t find myself / Thought I was someone else / Couldn’t find no peace.” It could easily describe his newfound domestic bliss, but he says it’s not autobiographical. In fact, he says it doesn’t really mean anything at all.
“I hadn’t really thought about it in those kind of terms. Probably on a very sub-conscious level, because I wasn’t thinking about what I was writing when I was writing those words; I was just making shit up really and seeing where it went. I’m sure the sub-conscious mind works like that; sometimes it might take months or years to think: ‘Oh, that’s what I was trying to say’, and it’s not always apparent at the time.”
When I mention who I’m in London to interview, people’s reactions fall into one of two categories; those who (rightly) consider him hugely relevant still and one of Britain’s best songwriters, and those who wonder why I’m bothering with someone whose creative peak was, for them, sometime back in the early Eighties. Weller has described himself in the past as a “working musician”, and I’ve always been perplexed by the idea that music, alone in the arts, is perceived as having a upper age limit beyond which people should stop playing, and stop caring – something that is never applied to authors, actors, or painters. He has a simple answer as to why; rock’n’roll is linked to youth in a way other artistic disciplines simply aren’t.
“Young people have always been the face of that, especially in the Fifties and Sixties when it was about rebellion. That music defined people and defined a generation. If you’re a classical, or a jazz, or a blues musician – the older you are, the more respect you have; kind of like the Village Elder, you know? So this is just in rock and pop. We’ve got all that history to look back on, but I don’t think there’s anything wrong with The Rolling Stones, whether they are 70 years old or not.”
I’ve only seen the Stones once, but they were brilliant, truly great for their age. Weller concurs. “I went to see them last year, first time ever, and I was really knocked out by their audience. They were the same age as them – people in their late 60’s and 70’s – and they’d obviously been going since they were kids. I found that really beautiful, to have stuck with them all that time and grown up with them; they’re still mad for it! And it’s the same thing for my generation, people who grew up with the Clash, or the Pistols, or disco; your mind is altered through that, you know? You don’t stop loving rock’n’roll just because you’ve hit 41 or something.”
Such music snobbery is, he says, limited to those of a certain age; kids these days, thanks to the Internet, just don’t see barriers. His own, older children simply “like it or don’t like it; they don’t make that distinction between eras, whether it’s a Stones song or Kanye or whatever is contemporary.” That’s not to say he doesn’t hold a candle for some of the great bands he grew up listening to, and how they compare to a lot of modern music; The Velvet Underground for example, who were one of my great discoveries at University.
“Timeless, isn’t it? The Velvets, that’s pretty eternal that music. I mean, I’d like to hear some new bands sounding as good as them, man! We live in a different time, and I think we have a different appreciation from some of them older eyes. I’m still glad that Iggy is out doing it; I’m glad that he’s still got his top off and the man’s going mad. What else is he supposed to do, wear a bowtie and sing supper club stuff? It just doesn’t work like that.”
His fans have been known to be fickle, and agreement on which era represents Peak Weller is hard to come by. I’ve seen him live twice in recent years; on both occasions, despite the enthusiastic applause that greeted new songs, it was palpable just how much everyone wanted to hear ‘English Rose’, ‘Going Underground’, and ‘A Town Called Malice’. Weller has made peace with the fact that The Jam were such an important band for people – “I kind of accept it; I have to accept it” – but gives short shrift to those who still enquire as to when Bruce Foxton, Rick Buckler, and himself will share a stage once more.
“It seems really strange to me that people think we would consider it, after such a long time. I don’t look back and think: ‘Oh, those days were great’ and get misty eyed about the Seventies or the Eighties; I couldn’t give a fuck about it really.”
He’s equally as forthright when it comes to people’s expectations of hearing “the hits”; basically, if you have a ticket to see him anytime soon, you won’t.
“You’re never going to satisfy everyone in an audience, and there’ll always be someone who wants to hear a certain tune; that’s the way it is. But people should know that I don’t really do the oldies/greatest hits thing – I never have done, and I never intend to. If you are going to be disappointed, I’d say go and see a tribute band or whatever floats your fucking boat, really man. I’m interested in what I’m doing now.”
His solo career has now been longer, both in terms of years and the number of releases, than his time with the two bands that made his name. He marvels how ‘Wild Wood’ is “an old song now, over twenty years ago”, and that he doesn’t expect this particular monkey to go away any time soon. “People constantly ask Paul McCartney about the Beatles, when he’s spent the last 45 years doing Wings, his solo stuff and all that,” he says. “That’s a bigger legacy, obviously, but still. I guess it’s inevitable.”
We're five weeks out from the General Election, and campaigns have started shifting into top gear. There’s a jittery sense of apprehension in the capital's air; more than previous years, this vote feels like a battle for the country’s very soul. Few have managed to infuse their music with such righteous indignation and fury at the status quo as Weller did in his early career. The “angry young dude”, as Noel Gallagher once described him, reeled off a stunning sequence of articulate, politicized singles – ‘In The City’, ‘Bricks And Mortar’, ‘Time For Truth’, ‘The Eton Rifles’ – that has never been bettered. I ask if the political apathy and disenfranchisement that people complain about nowadays is similar in feeling to the situation he wrote so eloquently about in the late Seventies, but he shakes his head.
“I don’t know if it’s that similar, no. If you look to the  riots, it was not in any way political at all, it was about looting, burning, nicking trainers and all that bollocks. I like a lot of what Russell Brand says, you know? I don’t think it’s possible to have a revolution unless you are politicised, personally. I don’t think it would work because we’ve become so materialistic; and it’s not the kids’ fault either, we’ve been educated to be materialistic, we’ve been constantly sold shit. The same bullshit is going on, but it has always gone on. The establishment, the authorities – whatever you want to call them – it’s the same thing, it’s never been any different.”
“When the riots happened in the late Seventies and early Eighties, there was a genuine grievance – mainly racial – but there was something genuine about it; it was frustration, it wasn’t just about looting a sports shop, and that’s the difference for me. But then we live in an even more materialistic society where we are judged by what we own, what we’ve got and what we haven’t got.”
Many might wonder, if he feels so strongly about such matters, why he hasn’t returned to such themes in his songs. But Weller The Artist, forever moving forwards, just doesn’t want to re-tread old ground. “It’d be hard for me to do that; if I did, I’d only be writing what I wrote thirty years ago or more. My ideas and my lines wouldn’t be any different; it'd be ‘Going Underground’ or ‘The Eton Rifles’, the same sentiment.”
He has a point. It’s hard to imagine a more apt hymn for troubled times than ‘Going Underground’, the lyrics of which seem oddly prescient (or maybe just timeless). “To buy nuclear textbooks for atomic crimes” – Trident: “Some people might get some pleasure out of hate” – the rise of UKIP and Brexit: “Some people might say my life is in a rut / But I’m quite happy with what I got” – Cameron’s “aspirational Britain”: “You’ll see kidney machines replaced by rockets or guns” – the dismantling of the NHS: there’s barely a line that can’t be read as a scathing critique on some modern malaise. It saddens Weller that, thirty years on, the same issues are being debated, the same battles needing to be fought.
“Every time they fire a missile in the Middle East – where we should never fucking be anyway – you’re talking about £850,000 worth. At the same time, there are just under a million people using food banks in this country, a rich, developed country like this? The only plus side is that I don’t think they can bullshit us as much because we have more access to information these days through the Internet, which you didn’t have thirty years ago. I think apathy, and I’m probably one of them, comes about because who would you vote for to make a change? Did you watch the great debate the other week? Fucking rubbish mate, I wouldn’t vote for either of those two! You might as well vote for your local estate agent. So that’s what leads to the apathy, because where is the alternative to the Tories? I don’t see that in a band or anyone else really; we all know that. It’s like: ‘Alright, I don’t believe in this, but where do I go? Who’s going to represent me?’ My opinion isn’t represented out there, and I don’t know if it will come back or ever return.”
Many column inches have been taken up trying to explain or lament the lack of political sentiment – or anger – in mainstream and popular music; where are the rightful heirs to people like The Jam? Sleaford Mods are one of the few who have taken on the task of chronicling the frustration of ordinary working people in Broken Britain, and Weller is pretty stumped as well. “Young Fathers, from what I’ve read about them and their ideas, have that kind of attitude. They definitely seem to be out on their own doing that.” He speaks with a fondness for the past; a time when “rightly or wrongly, there was something very noble about being in a band,” and how music – especially rock’n’roll – was viewed as a vehicle for change. He thinks those days are long gone.
“There was a genuine feeling that rock’n’roll could change things. We’ve gone past that I guess, and it hasn’t changed anything. It can change the individual, but for a lot of working class kids…when I was young, there was either sport that got you out of your surroundings, or music, or crime – otherwise you were destined to end up in the factory or a fucking build site or whatever. For a lot of people, I don’t think they see being in a band as an alternative lifestyle, because we’re so bombarded with the whole celebrity culture now; people are just famous for being famous, you don’t have to have any talent, just get yourself on TV and in a magazine, which is a bullshit message to send out to young people. There might be a bit of romanticism going on here, but I felt there was something important about being in a band and saying something; that’s not as apparent as it used to be.”
Several weeks after our interview, I watch him in action again, in Amsterdam. He’s as bright and sharp as always, and runs through a very modern set including most of Saturns Patterns; despite not being available yet, the songs are positively received. His one concession to the past is an encore of ‘The Changingman’; it gets the night’s loudest cheer. As he struts around, a contented grin on his face, the crowd shouts the words back to him; “What I can’t be today, I can be tomorrow”. It’s fitting for Weller, a musical chameleon who’s not afraid of learning, progressing, trying new things. The changing man marches on, still shouting.
Saturns Pattern is out on Monday 18th May, on Parlophone.